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Urgent Care administrators, officials look at ways to cut budget

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By Alice Du Pont

"I have been working at the Urgent Care since it opened. More than 95 percent of the patients go home happy. Every 3 or 4 days we have to send a patient to Tallahassee. If you can't keep the Urgent Care open, how are you going to keep a hospital open?" asked an emotional Chookiert Emko, M.D.

Before Emko returned to his seat, Commissioner Doug Croley asked him if he had any ideas for getting paying patients to use the facility.

"At this point we can cut to 5 or 6 hours a day and do whatever it takes to keep it open," he said.

Frustrated citizens wanted to know why no one knew about the financial situation at the center until a week before it went broke. Facility Administrator Corey Fleming said he didn't have access to the balance in the trust fund and that he asked questions during budget meetings but was never told an exact amount.

He found out the amount last Wednesday, he said, through a memo from Gadsden County Clerk of Courts Nicholas Thomas.

"Every budget period we looked at decreasing staff, cutting back hours or cutting back weekends. The decision was to continue operating the same. We could close on weekends and you'd still be in a deficit. I've tried to save money on supplies and in other areas," Fleming said.

He said a major problem is that many people who use the center do not pay. Patients who use the center typically pay one-third of the cost. Fleming said people come requesting service without proper identification. With no identification, people are giving false addresses and telephone numbers. Shortly after the center opened, Fleming reminded commissioners of this, and explained the problems with collections.

The collections company hired by the center collects about 40 percent of the debt owed.

The county was recently given a Medicare number but that amounts to between 35 percent to 38 percent of the actual costs. The county will be reimbursed retroactively to 2006 and recoup some of the cost, approximately $128,000, Fleming said.

Two years ago, the accumulated interest from the trust fund was approximately $2.5 million. The Urgent Care Center was deemed an allowable expense because the center was to become a stop-gap measure until the hospital opened. Most of the money was used, however, to pay other bills, which included attorney and consultant fees.

"It sounds to me like citizens want to know where the money went. I can tell you where it went. The last commissioners spent $235,000 on a hospital license they didn't have to buy, $165,000 on a lobbyist, $500,000 on attorney fees, and $800,000 on computers that are locked up in a warehouse somewhere," said Ed Allen.